On last week’s episode of the gripping series Homeland, Max finally met his end. Gunned down by the Taliban as his friend Carrie Mathison looked on in shock.
This article in the Wall Street Journal was published prior to the opening of the final season of Homeland. It remains to be seen what fate meets the two remaining lead characters as the eight season drama concludes.
There are four episodes remaining. The next is Sunday evening on Showtime.
Wall Street Journal 2.3.2020
It looked like Max Piotrowski’s luck had finally run out.
The “Homeland” character—a quirky and socially awkward surveillance expert—had dodged death through the Showtime terrorism drama’s first six seasons. When Maury Sterling, the actor who portrays Max, got a rare phone call midway through Season 7 from co-creator and showrunner Alex Gansa, he figured the jig was up.
“Max’s run is done. It’s been great. It’s not you, it’s us,” Mr. Sterling said Mr. Gansa told him. “It was the total breakup call.”
Fellow cast members offered their solace. “Homeland” co-star Mandy Patinkin—who has also managed to escape annihilation as CIA lifer Saul Berenson—told Mr. Sterling his final scene would be memorable.
“Mandy told me, ‘It’s a good death: a Russian GRU agent crushes your throat with his boot,’ ” Mr. Sterling recalled. “I was like, ‘That’s a terrible death, what are you talking about?’ It’s awful.”
Show star Claire Danes, who plays the brilliant and bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison, was also bummed about Max’s demise. Mr. Sterling said she told him it wasn’t fair, since their two characters hadn’t slept together yet—though she used more colorful language.
“Those are the rules,” Ms. Danes said in an interview, joking about her character’s tendency to get a little too close to the men around her, who then tend to become targets.
As the episode where Max was to get the boot drew closer, a “save Max” campaign began behind the scenes.
“I did start lobbying,” said Lauren White, a producer on “Homeland,” which follows a team of CIA agents and their associates as they battle terrorism around the globe, and the wife of Mr. Gansa. “Max was one of the only straightforward, sympathetic characters the show had.”
Others, including longtime “Homeland” director Lesli Linka Glatter, also felt killing off Max would be a mistake.
Mr. Gansa caved and called Mr. Sterling again.
“He’s like, we can’t do it,” Mr. Sterling said Mr. Gansa told him. “It’s not you. It’s Max. We just can’t kill Max.”
Violent TV shows put everybody on edge—cast members included, whose job security is on the line in every episode. Many in the cast of HBO’s “The Sopranos” said they would tear through scripts the minute they got them to see if they made it to the final scene.
“Homeland,” which started its eighth and final season on Feb. 9, has been unafraid to kill off major characters. In Season 2, Vice President William Walden—a former CIA chief—died from a heart attack when his pacemaker was hacked by terrorists. At a memorial service at CIA headquarters, a bomb wiped out many of the cast.
At the end of Season 3, Nick Brody—an American soldier turned spy played by Damian Lewis and the main antagonist of the early seasons—was hanged from a crane in front of a raucous crowd in an Iranian town square. Three seasons later, another prominent character’s run ended when the SUV of Peter Quinn, played by Rupert Friend, was machine-gunned, Sonny Corleone-style.
“Nobody is safe,” said Mr. Sterling. “That’s part of what makes it good.”
If there was anyone on the show who seemed expendable, it was Max Piotrowski. For the first few seasons he was a milquetoast and Zelig-like character who rarely spoke. Carrie Mathison described him as “creepy” after their first meeting, a line Ms. Danes said was the only one she ever ad-libbed on the show. Peter Quinn calls Max “a mute” in a subsequent episode.
“With the huge graveyard that is ‘Homeland,’ it is amazing that he is one of the last ones standing,” said Ms. Linka Glatter.
The character Nicholas Brody, played by Damian Lewis, faces the end.
PHOTO: DIDIER BAVEREL/SHOWTIME
Mr. Sterling, 48, isn’t a household name, but he has worked consistently for 25 years. When he landed the role of Max, Mr. Sterling wasn’t sure it would last past the pilot. “You wait by the phone,” he said of his early days on the show. “Phone rings or it doesn’t.”
Although it’s never discussed on the show, Max’s awkwardness in interacting with people comes in part because he is on the autism spectrum, something the writers decided when creating the character.
“It’s not overt at all. It’s very convincing,” said Ms. Danes of Mr. Sterling’s portrayal of Max as a person on the spectrum. “The fact that he can’t get too close to anybody works to his advantage, it’s one of the reasons he has survived,” she added.
At times, Max served as comic relief in the tension-filled show.
In Season 6, Max, working undercover, is trying to land a job at a company in the business of peddling misinformation online. Asked during the job interview to explain a yearlong gap in his résumé, Max responds he spent that year “smoking meth and masturbating.”
In another instance in Season 3, Mr. Sterling’s character shows up to a CIA safe house and an angry Peter Quinn asks him what took so long. “Taxi got lost,” Max deadpanned.
“Lord knows we’re desperate for a little bit of funny on our show,” Ms. Danes said. “What Maury did was really remarkable. He made a whole lot of something out of not very much.”
One episode featured a memorial for the vice president—killed by a hacked pacemaker—where a bombing took place that killed off even more characters.
As the Max character rose in stature, the temptation to off him also grew. “He was on the chopping block every year,” said Ms. Linka Glatter.
Mr. Gansa, the co-creator and showrunner, said whenever the writers were challenged with how to end an episode with a dramatic moment, getting rid of Max was often discussed. At the end of Season 4, which took place in Pakistan, Max for a time was going to be killed when the embassy was under fire from terrorists.
Overall, Mr. Gansa said he probably has called Mr. Sterling at least three times during the show’s run to tell him Max was being killed off, only to call him again, “like a governor calling with a stay of execution at 11:59 p.m.”
“I put Maury through the emotional wringer, which I think helped his performance over the years,” Mr. Gansa said. “It kept him on his toes.”
As “Homeland” enters its final season, Mr. Sterling is keeping mum on Max’s fate, but he said the character does have his biggest story line to date.
Mr. Sterling said his character will have a big story line in the coming season, above.
In hindsight, Mr. Sterling feels silly when he thinks about his initial reaction to the role, which he assumed would be short-lived.
“I was like, if I’m not Matt Damon in ‘The Bourne Identity’ then I’m a failure,” he said. “I remember going in for a wardrobe fitting to play Max and they’re dressing me in these gaudy, boxy clothes and I’m thinking, ‘this sucks.’ ”
It was a good lesson, Mr. Sterling said. “Show up, do your work, be professional and you just have no idea of where it will go.”